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Rudaw

Opinion

Iran’s War Against its Religious Minorities

By Rudaw 30/6/2013
column
column

By Dr. Amir Sharifi


Iran’s human rights violations are most evident in its discrimination and intolerance against religious minorities. Recent demonstrations and the self-immolation of two followers of the Yarsan faith, also known as Ahl –e- Haq, against Iran’s severe penal codes and abusive practices raised the alarm about the sufferings of this religious minority. 

Numbering over one million, the Yarsans are not recognized as a religious minority and they are labeled as Fergh e Zaleh, a “false cult”.

Yarsan or Ahl –e- Haq, literally means “People of Truth”. It is an ancient religion practiced mostly among Kurds in urban and rural areas in and around Kermanshah region in western Iran. The faith has also followers in neighboring Iraq and Turkey.

While People of the Book, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians are at least on paper recognized in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, Yarsan does not constitute a legal entity.

They are banned as a “false cult” and accused of falsifying Islam. As reported by Amnesty International’s 2008 annual report “Religious minorities which are not recognized under the Constitution, such as the Baha’is and Ahl-e Haq are particularly at risk of discrimination and persecution. They have no right in law to practice their faith communally. Officials monitor the presence of unrecognized religious minorities in schools and workplaces. For some crimes such as murder, victims who are members of unrecognized religious minorities are not regarded as persons with full equality before the law.”

 Yarsan or Ahl –e- Haq, literally means “People of Truth”. It is an ancient religion practiced mostly among Kurds in urban and rural areas in and around Kermanshah region in western Iran.  

 

Discrimination against the Yarsans has taken various forms including banning the faith, religious assembly, places of worship, religious monuments, symbols and rituals, religious speech, political and religious representation, publications, the right to education and communication in Kurdish, Yarsan dress code, employment …etc.

The ultimate criterion used against them is the so called Gozineh, a religious test imposed on religious minorities to exclude them from all arenas of social, political, and economic life so that they renounce their beliefs in favor of the dominant doctrine and dogmas.

For example, in a directive issued by the Ministry of Education in 1997, school administrators are encouraged to report any students or staff members of “Feragh e Zaleh, subversive sects (members of religious minorities) to the security office of the Ministry of Education within two weeks.”(Amnesty International, 2008 report). 

In the same report comes yet another leaked directive issued in 2007 by the Ministry of the Interior to the local governors to reject the requests of Yarsans to establish jamehkhaneh or “place of worship” in various cities and villages. (Trans. Amnesty International, 2008 report).

Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) also reported that Sayed Farokh Shrine in the village of Khobyaran Jalalvand in Kermanshah province was demolished in June 2011.

In 2004 Yunes Aghayan and four others were arrested for refusing to remove religious slogans placed at the entrance of a farm. They were charged with Moharebeh ba khoda “war against God”, a crime punishable by death.

This incident prompted Heiner Bidefeldt, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion, Ahmad Shaheed , Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Christof  Heyns, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions to write to the Iranian government in July, 2009 and again in April, 2012 to stop the execution of Yunes Aghayan whose sentence had been upheld by the Supreme Court in April 2005.

In 2012 the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom described Iran as “a constitutional, theocratic republic that discriminates against its citizens on the basis of religion.” 

Yarsan religious and community leaders have been repeatedly summoned, interrogated, and often threatened or detained incommunicado by the Intelligence Agencies of the Islamic Republic.

  Yarsan religious and community leaders have been repeatedly summoned, interrogated, and often threatened or detained incommunicado by the Intelligence Agencies of the Islamic Republic.  

 

Commenting on religious minorities in Iran in 2013, the U.N Special Rapporteur, Ahamad Shaheed says, “Members of both recognized and unrecognized religions have reported various levels of intimidation, arrest, detention and interrogation that focus on their religious beliefs. Some reported that they were psychologically and physically tortured.”

The Yarsans of Iran have tried every possible peaceful means to voice their discontent with their difficult situation. But the Islamic Republic favors its own moral and religious code of Shiite Islam as the ultimate authority, impervious to the complaints and grievances of religious minorities.

In their plea for religious liberty some members of the Yarsan community have gone to the extreme to express their protest and outrage against these indignities and injustices. In June this year, Hassan Razavi and Tahari set themselves alight in front of the main administrative office of Hamadan province to protest the humiliation and harassment of Keyumars Tamnak, whose moustache the prison authorities had shaved off in mockery in a Hamadan prison. For the Yarsans, the moustache is an evident symbol of group membership and modesty.

Both Razavi and Tahari lost their lives a few days after the self-immolation, leading to anti-government demonstrations in Kermanshah. Their deaths reveal the extreme intolerance and persecution to which this peaceful religious minority is subjected.  Such persecutory episodes are not just about or against the religious philosophy and devotions of its members but the cultural, social, and linguistic manifestations of an indigenous religious order whose cultural and musical traditions are rooted in ancient Kurdish religious traditions and history.

There is no religious liberty in Iran because there is no liberty of any kind. The principle of Velayate Faghih has turned religion into politics and politics into an official religion in which religious minorities have no place and no voice. All have suffered the same fate in a country that has become a “dark vicious” place for all vulnerable minorities including Sunnis.

As the Islamic Republic callously ignores the international community’s efforts to put an end to institutionalized disenfranchisement and persecution of religious minorities, these groups are still plagued by the severe Islamic penal codes and restrictions. International human rights organizations should be commended for their documentation of human rights abuses. However, there is a pressing need to raise awareness about the Yarsans and the religious war that the Islamic Republic has waged against them.

Dr. Amir Sharifi is president of the Kurdish American Education Society in Los Angeles

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